Vintage Gaming: Earthworm JimBy Yannick LeJacq | November 6, 2011 | Features | No comments | Share
3D was already a given by the time I started playing games, so I viewed 2D universes with a degree of curiosity. As silly as this may sound to people who actually understand video games or make them themselves, I have always loved 2D games for the ways they make me think about space. Obviously three-dimensional spaces expand the horizons of possible game worlds, but something about the claustrophobia of 2D games has always given me the sensation that I am being forced to think more creatively to extend the possibilities of a limited number of resources as far as possible. Much of the beauty of recent indie games such as VVVVVV, Limbo, and Braid lay in their respective gameplay mechanics that pushed the limits of 2D space to force the player to think in unique and challenging ways.
Enter Earthworm Jim, the most unlikely of heroes. He is living the simple, agrarian lifestyle that most invertebrates are born into, when one day an “ultra-high-tech-indestructible-super-space-cyber-suit” lands on him. Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and, it turns out, some have it thrust upon them when the clumsy Psy-Crow drops his precious delivery for the “Evil Queen Pulsating, Bloated, Festering, Sweaty, Pus-filled, Malformed, Slug-for-a-Butt.”
Now proudly wearing the super suit, Jim must travel through the galaxy to vanquish maniacal goldfish and muscular cats, all the while evading the dastardly Psy-Crow who is always hot on his heels. There will be many struggles along the way. Sometimes, Jim will even become separated from the power of his super suit, and be forced to rely on his wits and good humor alone. But with enough daring and courage, Jim will finally rescue the beautiful Princess Whats-Her-Name.
Or at least that’s how the story goes. And as far as I can tell, most of that lies dormant behind the irreverent humor and surrealist beauty of the original Earthworm Jim, designed and released for the Sega Genesis system in 1994. Starting the game completely unversed in Earthworm Jim lore, you feel like the earthworm himself, suddenly tossed into a world of hostile dogs, giant hamsters, and dancing trashcans. But you pick up your trusty blaster and answer the call of duty.
At first glance, Earthworm Jim can seem like a snarky reskinning of other classic run-and-gun platformers such as Contra or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And when I first dusted it off for vintage gaming, I was hesitant to play something that seemed so archaic. The controls, as often occurs when revisiting your old favorites, suddenly felt clumsy and imprecise, the load-times slow, and the levels deceptively short.
But if the artwork is bizarre and spectacular in Earthworm Jim, so is the gameplay. The game’s use of 2D space is endlessly creative, beginning with the protagonist himself. In addition to his ray-gun type pistol, Jim also has a melee attack that involves wrenching himself out of the suit head-first to smack his enemies with his tail, a seemingly trauma-inducing action that Jim performs with such gusto his whole body snaps like a whip. He rappels across chains and robes by grappling with the curled flexibility of his head, and swings along hooks throughout the levels by whipping himself around with the same gumption displayed during combat.
All of this still sounds like standard platforming fare, albeit with an unusually creative protagonist. And Earthworm Jim’s sense of humor does carry the game a long way. If you pause for too long, for example, Jim pulls his head out of the suit and begins jumping rope with himself. In one of my favorite moments from the game, you approach the malevolent Bob the Killer Goldfish expecting the jarring acrobatics of Earthworm Jim’s hilarious boss fights, only to knock him off his pedestal, shattering his fishbowl with an anticlimactic gusto.
But Earthworm Jim does something more than infuse gameplay with good humor. It experiments with space in a way that disguises the standard “get from point A to point B” structure of most video games wonderfully. Every inch of the game’s diverse levels, set in any place from hell to the inexplicably named “Buttville,” poses new challenges for the player’s limited toolset. Electric shocks suddenly force you back on your toes. Seemingly invincible bankers (which, the occupying folks will be happy to see, are anxiously counting their money and filing their paperwork in hell) close off chokepoints until you find your way across.
Jim, it seems, stays humble despite his heroism and célébrité. Many of the hazards in these levels are clever twists on the fears that must propel an earthworm groundwards so often. Birds pick at his head, trying to wrench him out of his suit as he flails helplessly. Occasionally, Jim is separated from his suit, forcing him to bounce defenseless through the level with the help of fans that propel him in the right direction. And through all of it, Jim keeps up a defiantly good spirit, shouting “oh yeah” and “groovy!” at every success to punctuate the stylish bass-heavy soundtrack of the game.
And just in the moments when the game seems like it could become repetitive, you find yourself in an entirely new but equally strange world. The Psy-Crow chases you through space as you dodge asteroids on your twin rocket ships. You fight through another level valiantly, and then find yourself bungie-jumping down what seems to be some hideous beast’s nostril, locked in airborne combat with a large and angry piece of snot.
So play Earthworm Jim because you wish there were still games that made fart jokes. Play Earthworm Jim because you miss games with cheeky animals as their primary protagonists. Or play Earthworm Jim to get a taste of a classic platformer that, for reasons I can’t possibly explain, has not yet spawned so many shameless spin-offs and sequels that his name has been dragged through the mud (no pun intended). Just play Earthworm Jim.